Sometime around 2008 I met my writing teacher at lunchtime and started complaining that I didn’t know what I was doing with my writing. I was scared to keep going in case it got worse. So far, every page looked like an accumulation of wasted time. He took a big bite out of his panini and said, with his mouth full, not looking at me, ‘Do keep at it. Just keep chipping away.’ I like to think of the moment before and after that bite of panini. I was feeling completely discouraged but then, with just a mouthful of panini, everything changed, and I felt like maybe something was possible and that I would finish what I was writing. I saw that maybe I could find a way to replicate that hopeful shift at other times, at other very ordinary moments. Before panini, after panini.

Then again, the power dynamic was askew at the table. I wasn’t eating anything and my tutor was, which put me in the more powerful position. The non-eater always has power over the eater: they have total freedom to speak, while the eater must negotiate every sentence with whatever it is they’re eating. So it’s possible that he was just passing the baton back to me because the panini demanded it.

Two black swans are waddling along the path, their long necks swaying. Closer, I see they are actually black terriers with wagging tails. As I approach, one of the terriers lunges at my ankles while barking explosively and dragging its owner sideways. I hop out of the way and do the apology wave, while smiling, and carry on running as the dog continues its fuss. Since going out running again, I’ve been really enjoying taking on the role of the friendly passerby. A car backs out of a driveway into my path, and when the driver sees me, I smile and trot past. I hop out of the way of some construction workers who are blocking the footpath and smile at them as I run past on the road. The joy of being the friendly passerby is in having a small human encounter while running away from it at the same time. It’s in smugly forgiving anyone who puts a tiny obstacle in your path. And it’s in signalling to others that you’re a nice person, without really having to back it up with any evidence.

I used to think the sign-off ‘Regards’ was a bit brisk, even sour, but I’ve come around to it and now I like its frankness and ordinariness. Also, it reminds me of once when my brother JP and I were in a CD store in Hamilton where one of his friends, Rob, worked. As we were leaving, Rob was busy with another customer and we couldn’t say goodbye, so JP said to the other store assistant, whose name I can’t remember, ‘Well, give Rob my regards.’

‘Will do,’ the assistant said, and looked over her shoulder and called, ‘Hey Rob!’

Rob looked up from the counter, where he was serving the customer.

‘Regards,’ the assistant said, and turned back to shuffling some CDs.

Rob nodded and waved politely at us, and we nodded and waved politely then we went out of the store and into the shopping centre.

I keep seeing a big rat run across the road. Today there’s a note stuck to the fence near the bit of road where I always see the rat. The note is printed out and has been put in a plastic sleeve. I stop to read it, and the note is all about the rats. ‘Kia ora residents of Aro Valley. I know there are rats. This whole valley is filled with rats. Stop taking photos of them and putting them on the Facebook page. and saying that my birds are the problem. My birds are not the problem.’ It goes on like that for a while.

I was sitting on the couch when the postie went past the house in his red t-shirt and hi-vis, wearing his wraparound glasses and his hulking mail bags. I’ve been seeing him most days because I have been home reading manuscripts. Today the postie didn’t stop and I watched him plod down the hill and through the trees that lead out onto Koromiko Road. I felt a wave of horrible sadness, because my brother used to be a postie and I missed him.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed something. There are a lot of silent dads in New Zealand fiction. Dads staring into the distance, dads chewing silently, dads nodding and turning away and going inside. I think that either one of two things needs to happen: our real-world dads need to talk more, especially during moments of high tension, so that this talking might be assimilated into our fiction; or we need to find new ways of describing silence in dads.

Shayne Carter ordered a steak. The steak came out huge and completely raw. Just completely raw. I don’t know anything about steak, other than what it looks like when raw. ‘What the hell is this,’ Shayne said. ‘Do I cook it myself?’ The waitress explained about how he had to cook it on the little hot plate that had been provided. When it was nearly cooked, he was to put the blob of butter on top. ‘Oh, okay, thank you,’ he said. When she left he turned to me and said, ‘God. I can’t believe I have to cook my own fucken steak.’ I agreed it was outrageous. He picked up the steak in one hand and put it on the hot plate – it made a sort of shrugging motion as it settled. Then we watched it, cooking, as the brownness crept upwards through the steak.

I wondered what my teenage self would have thought of it, back when I didn’t conceive of musicians as real people. The idea of, for example, John Lennon eating an apple, or Mama Cass making some toast, or even Neil Finn eating a pie in his car – it was too far outside my comprehension. To me they were kind of like plants, drawing everything they needed from air and light. I had a penpal who I’d met on a Radiohead fan site and she told me that in the background of ‘How I Made My Millions’ you could hear Thom Yorke’s girlfriend washing the dishes. When I listened to the song again, each little clinking sound was like cracks forming in something.

When I was about fifteen, my family and I went up to Auckland to see Neil Finn on the ‘Try Whistling This’ tour. He drank a cup of tea on stage. The audience seemed to love it, especially when, between songs, he said how good the tea was. ‘That’s a really good cup of tea’ – and everyone roared with laughter. But I was too overwhelmed to enjoy it.

I had a similar feeling when, years later, I saw Morrissey play, and he sweated through several shirts.

It took ages for the steak to cook on the little hot plate. But finally it was ready and Shayne ate it and we talked a bit about our families.

I am reading a manuscript that has a chapter with the subtitle ‘[With strings]’. I like the idea of dictating what kinds of sounds the reader has to listen to while reading your work. [With theremin.] But it wouldn’t have to be a musical instrument, necessarily. [With insinkerator.] [With rain.] [With puffing inhaler sound.] [With man jogging past uphill.] [With more rain.]

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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4 Responses to Passersby

  1. Jodie Rimmer says:

    Love your writing. I also Like your brain… I found you through Adam’s podcast which I accidentally found because I was reading his book… Which I found on a friends bookshelf whilst she was taking an eternity to cook me and our son’s pancakes and I was all talked out, standing there in her kitchen that felt like a cockpit.. Oh god, what a terrible word. It’s given me anxiety just even looking at it.. like I’m upside down. I’m sitting on the side of the road. Announomously (oh I must add this word to my sons spelling list, a good one) I like to pull over in weird places. It gives me a sense of possibility.
    From the safety of my car.
    Thank you for sharing your writing and your story. I needed to connect with something today and you did that for me. Now the words are jumbling around on the page and my chest is tightening but I’m going to press send x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. readwrite75 says:

    Hi Ashleigh
    Can you picture the very famous moment when Walter Cronkite removed his glasses and announced to the American TV audience that John Kennedy had been pronounced dead?
    I imagine this as a dividing moment just like your panini only for an entire country and very bad.
    Daniel O’Brien


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